The Fratti School for Music Box Restoration
By Larry Smith
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[ Nancy Fratti's
[ School For Music
[ Box Restoration
Nancy Fratti's School For Music Box Restoration
A Review By Larry Smith
Like a lot of high-tech computer types you may know of, I have a secret yen for the purely mechanical. This affliction impels me toward all manner of anachronistic amusements, mechanical music being chief among them, with antique musical boxes being foremost of all. It's an expensive hobby - especially in view of the prices charged by some "restorers" - and so the small-scale collector is usually restricted to collecting boxes that are showing their ages fairly obviously. Since many of these ages date back to the middle of the last century, they are seldom very playable, and so they wait until the money builds up once again so they might visit a restorer - an experience that can be a distinctly mixed blessing, as you may have learned from reading of my recent experiences along these lines.
But like most adults, I have fond memories of disassembling an alarm clock or two in my youth - and even of _re_assembling them - and musical boxes certainly don't _look_ all that complicated. Like many of those at the "strictly small-time" end of collecting these wonderful machines, I harbored a secret desire to get my own hands dirty in their mechanical innards and bring them back to life myself. But I restrained myself - knowing as I do some of the pitfalls that some professionals can fall into, and recalling that these are not _merely_ machines, but genuine musical instruments - I worried that I could damage a real treasure out of sheer ignorance.
As it turns out, it is seldom one finds a box that has not suffered at one time or another in its life, by finding itself in the hands of people with far less circumspection than I. Indeed, this is why most of them need to _be_ restored - - but I am getting ahead of myself. It was while I was musing on these very thoughts to my companions in automatic musical instruments on the Internet that I discovered Panchronia Antiquities, and the unusual service it offers at rare intervals.
And so, on the week of June 24th, 1996, I spent my summer vacation in the tiny town of White Hall, New York, learning exactly how to restore musical boxes from a personable and knowledge pair of experienced restorers. It wasn't an easy week...but I learned a number of invaluable lessons.
Nancy Fratti - owner of Panchronia Antiquities - sponsors the school every other year. Though the effort of it engenders considerable doubt that it will ever be offered again, it has been run on even numbered years for quite some time. The beginner's program runs a full week - 40 hours - of what amounts to a very, very specialized shop class where one learns how to disassemble, diagnose, repair, clean, refurbish and reassemble a "standard" cylinder musical box. Tuition this year was $1300 - and each student had to provide a suitably inoperative box for them to work on.
The course begins with the open house the Sunday before the first class, where you settle up any outstanding balance with Nancy, and perhaps pick out one of her "student" boxes to work on, if you don't have one, or it is not "suitably" broken. Ideally the box will need a tooth tip or two, and at least one entire tooth replaced. I picked up a small box with a missing tooth, though neither it, nor any of my other boxes needed any tips - an unusual and somewhat inopportune blessing that I was forced to suffer with.
Classes began the following Monday at 9:00 AM sharp with introductions to the "headmaster" of the school, Mr. Joe Roush, and his quick-witted assistant, Chuck Walker, two of the most engaging gentleman I can recall meeting in recent memory. Both have been doing restorations for many years to exacting standards, and are as familar with these types of instruments as any you are likely to meet - - which does not preclude the likelihood of your box springing a complete and utter surprise on you during the course, but it does serve to lessen it some-what. Classes are restricted to a maximum of six students, to assure an adequate supply of time for each.
The first day concentrates on proper disassembly, and this is one of the most important - perhaps I should say, one of the most critical - phases, since it is during this part that most boxes come to grief. We are taught how to properly "power down" the box and release the spring fully before attempting to disconnect anything. This is a simple but crucial procedure, and overlooking it - as beginners are all too wont to do - can easily lead to someone disconnecting the governor while there is still power in the spring, a situation that can lead to a "run" - where all the power of the spring is released all at once, spinning the cylinder to a high speed, smashing its pins against the delicate teeth of the comb and damaging both to an incredible degree - and once this happens, the only remedy is extensive and expensive comb repair, and complete repinning of the cylinder itself, which is an exacting task for an expensive specialist and probably beyond the ability of any amateur restorer.
This phase is the longest time you are called upon to "watch this", and lasts most of the morning. Once you have a good idea of the issues involved, you spend the afternoon taking apart your own box, with Joe and Chuck circulating around (actually, Joe and Chuck circulate most of the time during the rest of the week, so henceforth this shall go without saying) to catch anyone making any classic errors and endangering their box.
Most of us discovered heavy wear in the governor, mostly in the "endless" - musical boxes use an endless-screw/worm-gear arrangement that uses the resistance of the air to a pair of spinning vanes to slow down and control the power of the spring - and most of the afternoon is taken up with how to detect and deal with this wear by grinding away flattened spots and polishing gear teeth. Most of us also discovered damage to the geneva gears - genevas were invented to allow the box to "count" the number of winds on the spring, to prevent over winding. However, as with most fool-proofing devices, fools have proven themselves ingenious enough to deal with any amount of protection...the application of no small amount of muscle had completely emasculated the gears on both my smaller boxes - and, as I later discovered after going home, on my larger box as well. Ham-handed over winding appears to be nearly a given in any box in need of restoration. The lack of standards for these various types of parts makes these simple-sounding repairs into nightmares, and even Nancy's considerable inventory of spares is seldom equal to the task without a great deal of grinding and file-work to adapt them to your particular box. You will want to get to know and love your needle files. Someday they may save your life. Or, at least, your musical box.
After that morning, we were well ready to take a break - lunches, by the way, are included in the tuition, and these simple but well-prepared catered meals were served in a screen tent in back of Nancy's castle-like home were most welcome breaks in our work. Since a hefty part of the labor involved squinting through various type of magnifiers at teeny little parts, you spend a lot of time hunched into strange positions - you don't move around much, but, believe me, you can develop a killing hungar.
By the second day, you are into the real meat of the course - repairing and refurbishing the comb. The comb is the heart and soul of a musical box, the quality of the comb is the quality of the entire box - and it is the comb that is the most in harm's way. On the second day, you learn how to replace the broken tip of a tooth.
Among the various types of comb damage, broken tips are probably the second-most common. Dampers are first, but replacing them is finicky work that can't be accomplished until all the other comb work is completed anyway, and so is left for the last two days of the course. It is easy to see why tips are such a problem if you examine a musical box in any detail - while the teeth on the comb can be fairly robust pieces of steel, the tips narrow down to the thickness of a few sheets of paper, to exactly match the diameter of the pins on the cylinder that must pluck them. If the tips are too wide, they will not only catch the pins that are supposed to pluck them, but they will "side-swipe" pins that happen to be close to the track they are playing, producing a chirp or grinding noise or even a completely wrong note at odd points within the song. Since the steel of the comb is tempered to a fair degree of hardness, the tips are very vulnerable to abuse, and it is not at all common to lose half of them or more in a bad "run".
Tips are replaced by using a ruby-dust-coated disk in a flexible shaft drill. The comb is carefully fed into the cutter and a slice made into the tooth at the point where the new tip is to be. Special "tipping wire" is then bias-cut to fit the root of the slot, and flux applied liberally to the wire and slot. The tip is then soldered into place using a low-temperature but very strong solder and a fairly weak soldering iron - all of this to prevent heating the tooth unduly, which will weaken its temper and change its tone (and thus, ruin the music it makes - it is surprising how many people "fixed" musical boxes down through history, treating them as mere machines and not as the musical instruments they are. Many boxes are found today with very indifferent tooth replacements - they are mechanically correct, and the box "works", but they simply do not sound "right". In fact, they can sound _awful_.) The need to deflux the piece is stressed whenever we reach for the solder - the flux is a fairly powerful acid that can oxidize steel overnight or even more quickly, and so we are taught to soak the comb and rinse our hands in bicarb solution to neutralize this acid as soon as we are finished with any soldering operation.
Late on the second day and into the third, we also learned how to "spin" the cylinders. Cylinders are made of brass, and the pins are of steel, and the combination could lead to funny "clinking" noises as the cylinder resonates to each note plucked. The Swiss (and it was almost entirely the Swiss who made this type of musical box) solved this problem by loading each cylinder with a layer of cement to make the cylinder less resonant, and to help hold the pins in place. This cement is, according to Chuck's exacting chemical analysis, merely 30% pine resin, and 70% plaster of paris. It serves the purpose, but it isn't ideal, and one of the drawbacks is that it softens at the relatively low temperature of 90 degrees - just a couple of hours in a hot car can do real harm to one of these types of boxes.
It is possible, of course, to replace the cement with some more modern and less troublesome material - Joe mentioned some restorers who have used such material as PVC - but this shades over the line of "restoring" and into "rebuilding", and the box is left in a state significantly different from its original one - and such people are also leaving potential problems for future restorers. The cement is a known quantity, and the remedy for this problem is a fairly trivial one, and Chuck showed us how to spin the cylinder in a lathe applying enough heat to reflow the cement and distribute it nicely around the inside of the cylinder.
Cleaning the cylinder is much the same. Again, it is chucked up in a lathe, and then a brass cleaner (or a silver cleaner for nickel-plated cylinders) is used along with fine chalk powder. This is not all power-work - it involves a lot of elbow grease, but the result can be a bright, shiny cylinder. One of mine came out so nice it was hard to see it was the same, grimy cylinder I'd started with. Sadly, however, my other cylinder was beyond the basic help of this class - the box had suffered a "run" and the pins were beaten aside or broken outright, and so it was sent off to a music box restorer's restorer, a professional repinner. This process takes two to four months (possibly more), but the result will be a nice, clean, freshly repinned cylinder. This is not cheap, however - even for my small cylinder, the service is $47 per inch, and goes up for larger diameter cylinders.
The third and fourth day was largely taken up with the single biggest issue that can face a restorer - crafting a replacement tooth. This is far too involved a section to do more than summarize here. One must first remove the stub of the old tooth, again employ the slit cutter to remove the base and a section of the comb itself, tidy and deepen the slit with hand files, then cut and shape a new tooth that will fit that slot. The new tooth must be hardened and tempered in a time-honored process that should be learned from someone who knows how, and then soldered into place using appropriate safegaurds to avoid heating the comb to the point where it loses temper - because if it does, then the comb may very well be completely ruined, and certainly beyond the capabilities of the amateur restorer. If it is a bass tooth then a lead weight must be soldered into place - - preferably without _de_soldering the base of the tooth where it is fixed in the comb, or doing the same to the lead weights of the teeth to either side.
Frankly, I found this section to be the most exacting and exhausting part of the course, and it made me very sorry indeed I hadn't taken metal shop in high school when I had the chance - a chance I had had far more recently than the other members of my class, I noticed. Since I am but recently arrived at the "wrong side" of 40, I was feeling my age until I discovered I was bringing the average age of the class down by a considerable amount, which made me feel much better. I commence to hope, however, my hands are as steady as Chuck's are when I reach _his_ age.
The fourth and final days were dedicated to the fine art of dampering a comb. Dampers are the least-understood - but most crucial - part of restoring a comb. Underneath each tooth is a little bit of wire perhaps a quarter of an inch long that curves up to the tip from a point perhaps an eighth of the inch back from the very tip (a spot called the "anvil"). As the cylinder revolves, the pins come up to this bit of wire before contacting the tooth, and the springiness of the wire dampens the residual vibration of the tooth, if any - then the pin slides past the damper and connects with the tooth tip to produce a good, firm pluck. Without the damper, the pin could come up under the tooth as it still vibrates from the last note it sounded, which would give you a short moment of bare-metal-vibrating-on-bare-metal resulting in a huge variety of unpleasant noises, from piercing bird-like chirps to grunts, grinding or buzzing noises, even burping sounds. The dampers are located in the anvil by tiny little pegs called "tapered pins", and those who bought them were issued special dampering kits by Joe which provided a jig and punches to insert the pegs. We were taught how to locate these pins, remove them, insert a new damper, and repeg it in place. Or, in my case, to peg it in place, since I discovered that, at some point in history, someone not so versed in these niceties had thoughtfully redampered my comb by _soldering_ the dampers directly to the top of the anvil. This made it very convenient to locate the old holes, but I can only hope that that restorer retuned the teeth to account for the weight of solder he added, and that he managed to do the job without ruining the temper of the comb - two things I shall not find out until my repinned cylinder comes back and I can reassemble the movement - at which point I will have invested over $800 in this box, quite aside from the amount of my personal time. This is especially worrisome in view of the fact that this job was certainly done without the benefit of modern, low-temperature solders, which means a fair amount of heat was certainly applied. These kinds of uncertainties are part and parcel of musical box restoration, however, and really cannot be helped. Chances are, the box is not beyond help - but as a friend of mine likes to observe, "sometimes you are the windshield, and sometimes you are the bug." You take your chances.
While I did not get the opportunity to reassemble my box, one of my classmates did do so, and we did get to enjoy the fruits of her labors in the last few minutes before we broke up. The dampers were not all installed, but the box managed to sing a few tunes for us nevertheless, promising a great reward for finishing the work remaining.
I was amazed at the patience and abilities of Joe and Chuck, and the amount of work they and Nancy had invested in this course. Each of us was equipped with a Fordham flexible drill, a full complement of files, loups, and other assorted tools, and access to Sherline and jeweler's lathes to simplify our work. The selection of tools never lacked, and our instructors were never at a loss for a remedy to a problem - even if that remedy was "it needs to be done by an expert" - - and they invested no small amount of work after hours handling jobs that needed to be done but were beyond the abilities of their students. I was likewise impressed at their considerable ability to recover from errors made in the course of repairs and salvage huge amounts of work that would otherwise have been wasted. And, like the best teachers, they were seldom at a loss to explain the whys and wherefores, and the lore about musical boxes and their construction that I picked up in this course was considerable.
Unlike some previous times when I came away from an "expert" restorer's work, I found the Panchronia team to have made for an enriching experience, unstinting of sharing their "secrets" and certainly not above learning a thing or two from their students. As Joe pointed out, musical boxes were built, and to a large extent, must be maintained, using 19th century methods in a 20th century labor market. No one is ever going to get rich restoring musical boxes - not monetarily, anyway - but the more people who can do the basic repairs and cleaning that can give a musical box a shot at life into another century, the better off I think we will all be. I think it was Arthur Ord-Hume who observed that we do not "own" musical boxes in the usual sense of the word - we are but incidents along the way in the box's own life, it lived before us, and it will - if we are careful - continue to live after us. And it's a nice feeling to think that someday some box we refurbish will pleasure someone else as it sings to them, thanks to our efforts. They are an invaluable bit of our musical and mechanical history, and well worth the effort. And I fervently hope my three will benefit from this education. I think they will.
regards, Larry Smith
Nancy Fratti - "Specialist in Antique Music Boxes and Restoration Supplies" Panchronia Antiquities P.O.B. 210 White Hall, NY 12887-0210
(518) 282-9770 (518) 282-9800 (fax)
A catalog of available supplies, disks for disk boxes, and CD's of music boxes is available for $5.
regards, Larry Smith
(Message sent Wed 24 Jul 1996, 20:05:41 GMT, from time zone GMT-0400.)